Botswana diamonds are in the spotlight again after a Botswana singer based in the United Kingdom, Lorraine Lionheart wrote a strongly worded letter to American Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter, Chaka Khan following revelations that she was scheduled to perform at the Diamond Empowerment Fund (DEF) which presented its 2014 Global Diamond Industry Achievement Award to President Ian Khama.
The award was presented to President Khama and the Government of Botswana in recognition of their global leadership and contributions to democracy. Lionheart states in her letter to Khan that “the most prestigious prize of the night will go to President Ian Khama, of Botswana, and as a Botswana citizen and fellow singer-songwriter she “ feels it is important to write to you to tell you a little about President Khama and Botswana diamonds in advance of your performance at the event.” The prize awarded to Khama, Lionheart states, is an insult to Basarwa communities in Botswana, and it is of note that Botswana still has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world.
By her own account, Lionheart was brought up amongst the Basarwa “and feel personally responsible for helping them defend their rights against the government that persecutes them.” Acknowledging that Botswana has a supposedly great human rights record in comparison to many African nations, Lionheart states that “However, Ian Khama is to be presented with an award that ‘celebrates the good diamonds do for communities around the world’ and ignoring the hugely negative effect that diamonds have had on the most subjugated sector of Botswana society is a crime.” Lionheart says that in the late 1980s the government of Botswana discovered diamonds underneath the ground where the Basarwa had roamed for millennia, and all of a sudden the tribe was no longer welcome there. According to Lionheart, the discovery of diamonds on the Basarwa’s land has led them to be displaced, forced to live in government camps that many view as places of death. They suffer disproportionately high rates of AIDS, alcoholism and depression, and they have seen no benefit of the diamond wealth that lies underneath their land.
“The government forced the Basarwa out in trucks and prevented them from entering the reserve. They closed their water borehole and stopped the Basarwa from hunting, though they have hunted using traditional methods sustainably for thousands of years,” states Lionheart in her letter. She says the government’s actions were ruled as ‘illegal’ by Botswana’s most important court, the High Court, in 2006; later, the court ruled that stopping the Basarwa from accessing water on their ancestral land was ‘degrading’ and illegal.
“Some Basarwa have been allowed to return – the majority have not – but the government has repeatedly used the excuse that the Reserve is for animals, not humans. They simply do not want the Basarwa there. Basarwa are being starved off their lands, beaten and accused of poaching when they simply try to feed their families, and they are being separated from their families inside the reserve,” says Lionheart. The singer says President Khama has won many awards for his ‘conservation’ efforts, but “he is allowing huge diamond companies to operate inside Botswana’s most important reserve. At the same time he is kicking out the very people who have protected that land and ensured it is a area of great biodiversity.”
“I hope you are able to use this rare opportunity to show your support for the Bushmen, and would be very happy to send you any information you may need about the communities of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve,” says Lionheart. She added that “Botswana’s Basarwa tribes are the original inhabitants of my country. They have lived for millennia, amongst other places, in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a beautiful expansive Reserve that was created for the protection of the Basarwa in the 1960s.”